Posing left or defending principle

David Broder, a member of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, has responded to an article by Tina Becker on the campaign for democracy in the National Union of Students. Ben Lewis continues the debate

It has long been part of the AWL's modus operandi to accuse the CPGB of 'smear tactics' and 'gossip'. Anything written about us must, it seem, contain such formulations - preferably linked to the description of our organisation as "the Weekly Worker group". David Broder takes this well-trodden route in his reply (www.workersliberty.org/node/9475) to Tina Becker's article on the attacks on NUS democracy (Weekly Worker November 1).

It is quite revealing that David desperately digs up Solidarnosc and how the CPGB once "regarded the Soviet Union as the centre of the world revolution" (www.workersliberty.org/node/9475). This is rather silly and cheap polemic, amounting to a deliberate attempt to confuse readers.

True, when we were publishing The Leninist back in the early 80s, we refused to join the orchestrated hysteria surrounding Solidarnosc. Lech Walesa was no hero of ours. Instead warnings were issued that Solidarnosc was bent on capitalist restoration and selling Poland to US imperialism.

David should also know better than most, as he was once a member of the CPGB, that the Soviet Union was always described as the "centre of world revolution" because of objective criteria. Russia/Soviet Union being that country where the contradictions of the global transition from capitalism to communism were most acute, most intense. There was no admiration of Leonid Brezhnev or Mikhail Gorbachev. On the contrary, they were denounced and the regime they presided over was described as "bureaucratic socialism".

But that was a long time ago, almost as long ago as when the precursors of the AWL were championing the provisional IRA. Comrade Broder's attempt to spread confusion and bring in secondary or completely irrelevant issues is, however, standard when it comes to the AWL's approach.

Nonetheless, comrade Broder does at least attempt to engage with some of the political points that comrade Becker and Communist Students have made in relation to the attacks on democracy in the National Union of Students that we are currently witnessing.

I cannot speak for comrade Becker, but I imagine that when she characterised a meeting of the AWL's student group, Education Not for Sale, as a rather "dull" affair, this was not on account of her fetishisation of "ultra-left politicking", as comrade Broder claims, but rather due to the fact that the gathering revolved around lectures on topics such as 'Ten years of New Labour's education policy'. It would be much better if the organisers had consciously sought to promote debate where there are important differences.

A good example within the AWL (and probably ENS too) is over the vital question of Iran. For example, there could have been a discussion with a speaker from Hands Off the People Of Iran, which in the face of the "political degeneration" of the anti-war movement, as Sofie Buckland put it, would have made for a good debate.

The Communist Students proposal for such a debate was, however, "forgotten" by the organisers. They preferred to invite a couple of slightly washed out 'Marxist academics' from the 1970s who rambled on for ages about nothing in particular (even AWL members in the gathering admitted that the long opening session was tedious and boring).

But what about the main points raised by comrade Broder on the substantive question? Yes, David, while we support the ENS's statement (www.free-education.org.uk/?p=397) as a starting point for an NUS campaign, we think it is insufficient - despite the abstract aim to "widen and extend democracy". If this is a real aim, and not a routine pose, why do you refuse to call for the abolition of the direct election by conference of NUS officers, particularly the president?

This arrangement is far from democratic - though it might appear to be for the naive or the uneducated. Direct election of officers in practice leads to a situation where they cannot be held to account until the next conference. If they so choose, they can do exactly as they want, regardless of competence or political persuasion. As you will undoubtedly recall, it was Kat Fletcher - a former AWL member benefiting from  the organisation's fulsome backing - who, despite talking the talk, used what is the Bonapartist position of NUS president to attack NUS democracy.

Instead of this procedure we propose that the elected executive should decide who from among its number should fill which officer's post - and have the right to recall and replace those who either are not up to the job or see fit to ignore the NEC's collective decisions in the name of a claimed mandate to act for the 'whole membership'. That would probably have meant that Kat Fletcher would not have remained NUS president over the whole 2004-06 period. No loss, as far as we are concerned.

Moreover, unless in addition the executive as a whole is made accountable to and instantly recallable by the membership, we will never reach the stage where Labour bureaucrats look for their training elsewhere. Comrade Broder dismisses this extreme democracy as being a system that would "in reality mean the election of officers wielding wide powers by a very small number of people". No, David, that is the situation that already exists, and one that needs to end.

This relates to our criticism of the AWL proposal for a "major cutting back of bureaucratic waste and redirection of resources to campaigning". It is not that we disagree with this - far from it. But what is the best way to achieve it? Should we urge NUS delegates to trust candidates who pledge to cut "bureaucratic waste"? Or should we go further and seek to bring the whole NUS machine under wider, more democratic control?

The drive for accountability and control of the leadership is also pertinent within our own working class organisations - that is, if we are to break from the straightjacket of the Labourite and trade union bureaucracy. The AWL itself does not operate a system of direct election of officers by the whole membership. Quite correctly, conference elects a national committee, which in turn elects an executive to whom the officers are accountable. What is the objection to a version of this system for the NUS and, for that matter, other democratic bodies?

Communist Students, for example, consciously eschews the direct election of officers. Its constitution lays down that: "Conference is the highest decision-making body of CS ". Conference elects the executive, which acts as the national leadership of CS between conferences...The executive will appoint recallable national officers to facilitate its work" (www.communiststudents.org.uk/const.html).

If David could elaborate on the way that the ENS membership constitutionally elects, holds to account and, if necessary, recalls its leadership, I think that this may also be helpful to the discussion, because all I can find by way of a democratic structure is a "draft document" from 2005 (www.free-education.org.uk/?p=40#more-40). Does ENS actually operate according to the rules of democracy and accountability?

We are not rubbishing the "united front" comrade Broder puts forward as a way of fighting the attacks on NUS democracy. Our method is not that of the Spartacist League - we are willing to work with any serious campaign fighting against the further bureaucratisation of the NUS. What we are saying, though, is that this present campaign has insufficient politics. But, as Sofie Buckland of the AWL argues in her critique of the rightism of the SWP on this question, the fact that a campaign may "as a whole" adopt "a particular platform" does not mean that "people have to agree with every dot and comma to work with it".

Quite right, yet it does beg the question as to why the AWL - purportedly against war on Iran and in solidarity with democratic struggles there - cannot support Hands Off the People of Iran! But, given the foul politics the AWL espouses on the role of imperialism in the Middle East, perhaps the answer is not so hard to work out. The AWL "model motion" for NUS conference on Iran states that "the current chaos, sectarian conflict and corporate plunder consuming Iraq proves that American (and British) military adventures in the Middle East have almost invariably disastrous consequences" (my emphasis). At first sight this seems reasonable enough. But what is meant by "almost invariably"? According to the AWL's number two, Martin Thomas, a "surgical operation" to "take out the foul Ahmadinejad" would actually be "good" and not at all "disastrous" (Solidarity October 11).

Back to the NUS campaign. The point made by comrade Becker is that there is hardly any difference between the AWL proposals and those of the SWP. For example, ENS agreed to drop the demand that "Salaried officials should receive no more than an average skilled worker" on the basis that its "non-inclusion was a judgement call about how to build a broad campaign".

So the ENS did not want to scare the SWP off and AWL comrades have admitted as much to me. But the SWP still did not support the remaining ENS demands. The worker's wage principle has a rich history in our movement and we think it would be good to include it - as comrade Broder points out, it is not as if nobody has raised these demands before. At the launch meeting for the campaign to defend NUS democracy, AWL comrades actually supported CS members when they put it forward. Why not include it in the ENS statement? Especially now that the SWP has made quite sure that it will not be adopted by the campaign overall.

Comrade Broder states that all student unions should hold regular, decision-making general meetings. That too is a good demand, so why did it not feature in the ENS statement drafted for the campaign?

The same applies to the restoration of the NUS winter conference (or at least for the increased duration of the conference now) - why do you not put forward such a demand if you actually think they are a good idea?

As to David's barb that our comrades did not know about the old winter conferences - as well as coming across as rather desperate, it is demonstrably false. In the report of the last NUS conference that Dave Isaacson and I produced, we noted: "Back in the early 1990s there used to be two conferences a year, five days in length. Clearly if we are interested in increasing democracy in NUS we need to start reversing these 'reforms' (cuts) and giving members the time (and energy) to discuss motions properly" (Weekly Worker April 5).

Yes, there are some organisational challenges involved in our proposal for staging a unified national election day for all student unions, but to dismiss this as "almost impossible"seems to underline how the AWL approach does not seriously pose an alternative to the bureaucracy. One of the reasons that the right gets away with what it does in the NUS, and why the mass of the membership is so apathetic, is that student unions call elections at the most odd times, and fail to publicise them properly, so that many students do not even know about them, let alone think about or engage with the politics of the candidates.

Let us move on to grants. To allege, as comrade Broder does, that the figure we are putting forward - that is, £300 per week - is nothing more than to "pose left", then this once again highlights the AWL's substitution of Labourism for  the Marxist political method. We begin with human need as against the logic of capital. Our demands address what students actually require in order to live something like a rounded life. Not only having sufficient money for housing, transport, food, clothing, etc, but time - including time for thinking, time for relaxation and time for politics. We completely reject the idea that time-consuming minimum wage jobs, poverty and huge debts are the inevitable lot of the mass of students.

The AWL method is to note what the trade union or student bureaucracy is saying, add on a couple of pounds and sprinkle onto it the 'transitional' fairy dust to concoct a recipe that they understand as politics. This is the point we have raised with the AWL and will raise again: the failure to intervene in struggles armed with the Marxist programme. Unless we stop asking what the system can afford, unless we go beyond making empty calls for a "democratic campaigning NUS" with a few left sound bites added, we will continue to see the election of yet more well-meaning leftists turned bureaucrats like Kat Fletcher.

Such differences should not prevent the cooperation of ENS and CS on issues like the democracy campaign. However, pathetic attempts to pass off our criticisms as attempts to "bash others on the left as a matter of principle, especially anyone connected to Workers' Liberty" or to argue on the basis of 'We've been doing this for years - you haven't!' are just not serious politics.

We criticise the AWL not "as a matter of principle". We criticise the AWL for what it has been doing "for years" - that is, over its lack of principle. And we shall continue to attack the AWL's economism, the AWL's inconsistent approach to democracy and the AWL's appalling social imperialism witnessed over Iraq, Iran, Israel, etc.